The role of cardinals in the Catholic Church


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One year ago cardinals from all over the world gathered in Rome to elect the next leader of the Catholic Church, after Pope Benedict XVI's dramatic resignation.

The College of Cardinals, the sacred body which elects the Pope, has gained 19 new faces to help Pope Francis run the world's oldest and largest Christian Church.

Amongst them is Archbishop Vincent Nichols, leader of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and Archbishop of Westminster.

But what is a cardinal and what role do they play in the Catholic Church?

Speaking on Radio 4's Sunday programme in January, the former Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, who was appointed cardinal in 2001 said: "The role of a cardinal developed during the Middle Ages in order for the Pope to help him govern the Church.

Electing the Pope

"When I was appointed I saw my role, not only as Archbishop of Westminster, but also being an advisor, helping and taking part with the other cardinals in the life of those who help the Pope, particularly in Rome."

The word 'cardinal' comes from the Latin 'cardinalis', which in turn derives from 'cardo', meaning the hinge of a gate - symbolising the fact they are essentially the support network for the Catholic Church.

Vincent Nichols

Vincent Nichols
  • Born in Crosby, Liverpool in 1945 and a keen Liverpool Football Club fan
  • As a young boy had ambitions to become a lorry driver
  • Studied for the priesthood in Rome from 1963-1970 and was ordained as a priest in the city in 1969
  • Became Archbishop of Birmingham in 2000 and appointed Archbishop of Westminster in 2009
  • Appointed cardinal by Pope Francis on 22nd February 2014

In the Catholic hierarchy, cardinals are second in importance only to the pontiff.

It was not until the Middle Ages when the title became well-known - it was given to bishops outside Italy and eventually to senior bishops all over the world as the Church spread its message.

One of the most important jobs for a cardinal is to elect the Pope, who is always drawn from their ranks.

Only cardinals under the age of 80 can take part in a papal election, which is called a conclave.

An election is called when the incumbent Pope dies or stands down.

It is a ritual that has been in place for centuries.

The task of electing a new leader has been entrusted exclusively to the College of Cardinals for more than 800 years.

According to a rule laid down by Pope Paul VI in 1975, the number of electors is not supposed to exceed 120 - recent appointments bring the number of cardinals to 218, 122 of which are under the age of 80.

Locked away in the Sistine Chapel, they cast their ballots in conditions of absolute secrecy - they have no contact with the outside world and cannot leave until a new leader is chosen.

In order to become a cardinal, clergy have to be Roman Catholic priests.

Start Quote

It is an honour to be a cardinal and for a particular person to be chosen”

End Quote Cardinal Murphy O'Connor

The 1918 Code of Canon Law decreed that all cardinals must be priests and since 1962, all cardinals have had to be bishops.

Each cardinal is personally chosen by the Pope of the day, with occupants of certain posts such as the Archbishop of Westminster traditionally becoming cardinals over time.

Some cardinals in the past have been senior Vatican officials or theologians who have been honoured for their contribution to the church.

As well as electing their leader, cardinals also act as a source of information and advice to the Pope - they are his advisors, councillors, friends, as well as his eyes and ears around the world.

They also head various congregations within the Roman Curia, the administrative body of the Vatican.

So what message does Cardinal Murphy O'Connor think the Pope will give to the 19 new cardinals?

Colour of blood

"I think Pope Francis would be saying to the new cardinals, 'we want you to be servants of the church in a particular way, and open your gaze and widen your heart'.

"It is an honour to be a cardinal and for a particular person to be chosen," he added.

Ranks of cardinals

  • Cardinal Bishops: are members of the highest order within the College of Cardinals. From among their number they elect the Dean of the College who presides over its meetings and the election of a new Pope
  • Cardinal Priests: are the senior Archbishops of the world, with each having a title of an ancient Diocese of Rome
  • Cardinal Deacons: hold the lowest rank of the Cardinals. They are members of the Roman Curia and theologians who have been honoured by the Pope for their contribution to the Church

Cardinals are instantly recognisable as they wear distinctive red robes.

This custom has been running for centuries, with the colour of blood symbolising the commitment to defend the church to the death.

Dignity and respect is bestowed on cardinals as they are referred to by the title of "Your Eminence".

The College of Cardinals is broken up into three ranks: Cardinal Bishops, Cardinal Priests and Cardinal Deacons.

Generally, the Cardinal Bishops and Deacons are members of the Roman Curia, with the Cardinal Priests being the senior Archbishops of the world.

British cardinals have played important roles in the past, with Cardinal Murphy O'Connor serving in four different Vatican offices, including the Congregation for Bishops which involves direct input in appointing bishops across the world.

Cardinal Basil Hume, who was Archbishop of Westminster between 1976-1999, was widely recognised as using his role in persuading Pope John Paul II to visit Britain in 1982.

He also presided over the conversion of about 300 Anglican priests who converted to Catholicism when the Church of England voted to ordain women priests in 1992.

Recent scandals

As the new cardinals begin to get to grips with their new role and visit Rome on a much more regular basis, is their role likely to change?

"I think the role of the cardinal will develop and they will have much more of a say in the governance of the Church, and therefore become more influential," explains Austen Ivereigh, director of Catholic Voices.

"At the last conclave, it was decided that the College of Cardinals would become an advisory body to the Pope, hence more trips to Rome and more meetings with the Pope.

"Traditionally, we've disregarded the over 80s who don't get a vote in a conclave. But they'll also have an important role to play as they will also attend the meetings."

Why cardinals wear red

  • Cardinals wear red robes, along with scarlet zucchetto (skullcap) and biretta (four cornered hat with tassel)
  • Red signifies the colour of blood and symbolises their commitment to defend the church
  • During daily business, a cardinal's robes are edged with red to signify his dignity and respect
  • On official occasions, the cardinal's robes are entirely red

Soon after his appointment, Pope Francis appointed a group of eight cardinals to look at reforming the Curia, which has been blamed for the Church's hesitant response to sex abuse and other crises.

Recent scandals to have hit the Church have included clerical sexual abuse, financial problems at the Vatican bank and the theft of documents from Pope Benedict XVI's desk.

Catholic writer and historian Michael Walsh thinks the Church should find a more democratic way to operate the institution.

"I like cardinals and their history, but I feel like they are out of place in the modern world.

"Also, the Pope chooses all the cardinals and this has a bearing on choosing the next pontiff as the cardinals do the voting. So the Pope can manipulate the outcome of the vote by bringing in people who have the same values as him, so there has to be a much more democratic way of operating the church."

Although Walsh concedes it would be impossible to change the constitution, he recognises the global status of the Pope and his representatives and what this brings to the Church.

"The Pope is an international figure and the cardinals he chooses represent him around the world, so it is important to recognise the important role that they play."

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